January 24, 2005


Clinton's Perverse Legacy: Is Clinton to blame for the Democratic Party's plight? (Jack Beatty, November 23, 2004, Atlantic Monthly)

Clinton was a business cycle president who happened to be in office during a time of innovation-driven prosperity. Clinton's legislative accomplishments are modest—at least to judge by his master criterion: improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Speaking in a heavy rain in front of a library that, he joked, one British critic compared to a double-wide trailer, Clinton singled out two of them, the Family and Medical Leave Act and welfare reform.

They are indeed emblematic legacies. Thanks to Bill Clinton, you can take a leave from your job to deal with a medical emergency in your family—but you won't get paid; the law only requires employers to give you the time off. Welfare reform has yielded some positive results since its enactment in 1996, though most of the jobs filled by welfare recipients pay low wages, offer few benefits, and are likely to disappear in economic downturns, and the effects on children who had to bring themselves up in the absence of their working mothers has yet to be measured. But it misrepresents the historical context for Clinton, as he did in his speech, to bask in the humanitarian glow of a policy choice motivated more by his reelection campaign against Bob Dole than by his compassion for single mothers caught up in welfare dependency. This is a point made eloquently by Peter Edelman, who resigned in protest over Clinton's embrace of a "hard" Republican version of reform, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story entitled, "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done." With welfare reform, Clinton did not "put people first," as he claimed Thursday; he put Bill Clinton first. Elected in 1992 with barely 43% of the vote, he governed as if the goal to which he was willing to sacrifice all other goals was his political viability. He spent his promise largely on himself. [...]

Clinton may not have left a substantial legislative legacy, but his political legacy is potent. He and Herbert Hoover may be the only presidents whose enduring bequest was to the opposition party. Richard Nixon's self-destruction in Watergate decimated his party in the congressional elections of 1974, the first post-Watergate contest. But that setback was transient, as the GOP resurgence under Reagan would show. Twenty years later Bill Clinton led his party to a more consequential defeat—the loss of the House of Representatives, the center of Democratic power since the New Deal. Clinton failed ordinary Americans, and wounded his party, by not bringing Health Care Reform—his one bid for a major achievement—to a vote, even though the Democrats controlled both branches of Congress. With each election cycle, it becomes clearer and clearer that 1994 was the worst defeat in the history of the world's oldest political party. Unlike the GOP in 1974, the Democrats may never recover from 1994—not today, when congressmen pick the voters through computer-directed gerrymandering, not when Congressional districts are becoming ideological affinity groups, the red districts attracting republicans, the blue districts democrats. So long as right-wing cultural populism is in the ascendant, it is hard to see any red state Congressmen losing their seats to Democrats, especially in the South.

In fairness to Bill Clinton, he never should have won in '92--as with Woodrow Wilson, only a third party challenge kept the Republican incumbent from winning. But, in fairness to Mr. Beatty, Tony Blair has shown that if Mr. Clinton had governed as far to the Right as he ran the Democrats might have held onto control of the government, even if as warmed-over neo-Reaganauts.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 24, 2005 7:56 AM

Clinton was the leader of the party when the 1994 election happened. The Democrats had a lock on the House and they lost it. After that, Clinton triangulated and he dumped the Democratic Party. The party then turned into a cult of personality and when Clinton was re-elected and they failed in their last chance to retake the House in 1998 with the Monica Lewinsky backlash, there wasn't much left to do.

Posted by: pchuck at January 24, 2005 9:48 AM

Clinton's legacy may be better off for not having Al Gore find those 537 votes in Florida. While Democrats today wouldn't be bemoaning their total loss of executive and legislative power, the fact that 9/11 happened while Bush was president allowed the Democrats to make the national security failures a bi-partisan issue. Had Gore won, the Democrats would have been in charge of the CIA, FBI and NSA for over 8 1/2 years, and the scrutiny would have fallen completely on Clinton's lack of focus on terrorism threats while in office.

Posted by: John at January 24, 2005 9:59 AM

Those issues would be secondary issues and under-reported by the MSM. Liberal big government would have quickly stepped in to "better coordinate government intellegence gathering" and to "better guarentee domestic security". The primary focus would probably have been on "why do they hate us" and "how can we make them like us". We would be searching for ways to open our hearts, shed our islamophobia, and to embrace the rich diversity present in our global village. Clinton's legacy would fared well under a Gore Presidency, even after 9/11.

Posted by: Phil at January 24, 2005 11:00 AM


Gore would have spent every ounce of energy both blaming Clinton and separating himself from Clintonism. Clinton would have been in worse shape, with people like Marty Peretz savaging him as they tried to protect President Gore.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 24, 2005 3:11 PM